Urban Comics: Infrastructure and the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives
Reviewed by Tristan Hanson
Dominic Davies’s Urban Comics: Infrastructure and the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives seeks, quite ambitiously, to answer some crucial questions for comics studies scholars, particularly those interested in urban infrastructure and resistant social movements. What might comics have to say about urban infrastructures specifically in the global south? How do comics represent urban infrastructures? How might comics be particularly well-equipped to analyze and critique urban infrastructure? Can we think of comics themselves as infrastructure–as opposed to “mere” representations–and where might that take us in a fight against neoliberal urban development? To what extent are comics viable activist tools allowing marginalized communities to exercise their Lefebvrian “right to the city”? To varying degrees all of these questions are answered in this heavily researched and energetically political piece of urban theory/comics analysis. Urban Comics takes readers all over the global south in an effort to demonstrate how comics cultures are (re)inventing vital practices for more just urban development. Each chapter revolves around a specific city–Cairo, Cape Town, New Orleans, Delhi, and Beirut–where alternative comics–sometimes called “comix”–have explicitly challenged neoliberal narratives of progress with re-imagined infrastructural renderings of these cities. In my view, Davies’s critique has four main threads that can be traced through all of the chapters: 1) that comics are particularly suited to navigating publics, 2) that comics lend themselves to collaborative effort, 3) that comics have the capacity to critique urban infrastructure by playing with their own internal forms or infrastructures, and 4) that comics can be a vital activist enterprise. These threads circulate, reiterate, and commingle in each of the chapters to form a sense of comics as a particularly potent medium for social change.
Chapter One shows how comics artists in Cairo have revised comics infrastructures in their graphic narratives to reorient looking, giving readers a view from the street in opposition to top-down neoliberal visions of infrastructural development. It focuses most of its analysis on the comics Metro by Magdy El Shafee and Qahera, the Webcomic, Not the City by Deena Mohamed. What the reader comes to see through this analysis is how Egyptian comics have sought to resist “telescopic urbanisms,” those visions of cities that see from above and tend to obscure street realities of poverty, discrimination, and sexual violence in favor of “segregationist” infrastructures of urban renewal. These artists position readers at the bottom allowing them to see from the street and see the street, and their comics “rebuild through its infrastructural form a renewed, radically re-visioned public city.” Such revisionings are material and circulate through revolutionary channels–the 2012 Tahrir protests being a locus of activity for many of the creators Davies discusses–potentially reshaping material realities. What Davies explores here is how attention to infrastructure opens up the between of visibility, positionality, and verticality, and how this opening can make way for a revolutionary consciousness. If Cairo’s explosive protests form the backdrop for a meditation on visibility, Cape Town’s push for the status of “global city,” as described in Chapter Two, brings the issue of image-making front and center. For Davies, comics artists of Cape Town have sought to lay bare “segregationist infrastructures” and the surveillance and oppression that comes with neoliberal development, through narratives of speculative utopia and eco-crisis. These narratives tend to look away from the heavily developed central part of Cape Town to the periphery–literally hiding behind a mountain in some cases–to find historically rooted communities that “deconstruct the progressive image-making of city planners.” In a sense, the comics emerging from alternative artists in Cape Town “reframe” the infrastructural image of the city by emphasizing potential pressure points such as eminent and actual water shortage, and by historicizing from the past or into the future to dirty the sterilized infrastructures that leave behind large portions of the Cape Town population in an echo of South Africa’s apartheid past.
Where Cape Town’s government has constructed a sort of designed sterilization of its urban environments, New Orleans’s sterilization arrived much more forcefully. Chapter Three addresses how graphic artists–many from outside of the city–have responded to “disaster capitalism” and “voluntourism” following the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Examining a number of comics, but focusing on Josh Neufeld’s graphic narrative A.D.: New Orleans After Deluge, Davies argues that comics artists have deployed “volumetric views” and “scalar shifts” in perspective to fill the space of a post- Katrina New Orleans that has largely forgotten about its urban “precariat”–those mostly black citizens displaced from their homes–in its dash for renewal. Crucially, some of the comics produced about/in New Orleans have come to intervene in the material conditions of the city’s infrastructure as they circulate in the city itself. This is exemplified by the work of the New Orleans Comic and Zine (NOCAZ) festival which has supported work with a commitment to social activism and has been able to solidify a community in resistance to the “neoliberal deluge” pummeling the heart of the city.
While also focusing on the way comics are able to represent movement in/through urban space, Chapter Four examines Delhi by returning to the street that was crucial to how comics artists in Cairo were able to create space for resistance. This time, however, Davies notes how comics emerging from collective action–like those of the Pao Collective and others–have taken to “rewiring” Delhi by “going underground” and outside of the city’s typically neoliberal gated security and urban renewal infrastructure. These comics seek to decode that infrastructure through an ethic of “pedestrianism”–a concept borrowed from Michel de Certeau–that finds characters within these graphic narratives literally walking through the margins of the city to observe the everyday minutiae of Delhi. Pushing at the boundaries of “overworlds and underworlds,” these narratives make visible certain regulatory infrastructures, including those that make it dangerous for women to even take up pedestrianism to begin with. Here artists like Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, and contributors to the Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back anthology “turn the city inside out” to reveal hegemonic infrastructures that intensify discriminations and marginalizations.
As pedestrianism in Indian comics emphasizes the everyday experiences of those Delhians living at street level or below, so have graphic narratives of Beirut sought to recover everyday public interactions/spaces from a “selective post-war amnesia” emerging from the “urbicide” of the Lebanese Civil War. Many of these narratives—including those by Zeina Abirached, Lamia Zidae, and the collective, Samandal—have worked to move behind the violence of war and post-war neoliberal development to memorialize
public/private spaces seemingly forgotten. Through formal experimentation, infrastructural and social resilience emerges from the everyday lives of Lebanese caught up in conflicts that segregate and marginalize them, exploding boundaries–both of representation and everyday materiality–to reconstruct a “more socially and spatially just” potential future. Comics here are, self-consciously, “comix,” alternative graphic narratives that emphasize “coexisting difference” in the form of coexisting images and texts.
Davies’s book appeals to me, as a scholar of rhetoric and an instructor of a self-designed Rhetoric of Comics course, because it has a recognizably rhetorical bent: it addresses issues of democracy, public circulation, and public participation. Each of these chapters, if read in isolation, contributes nuanced readings of graphic narratives that account for contexts and exigencies, providing “volumetric” views of the interventional practices of alternative comics cultures. Taken as a whole, the book gestures toward how comics infrastructure–its formal elasticity–can teach us how to read cities. And, at the same time, it helps us to imagine the extent to which comics might be a viable way to participate in infrastructural development and intervene in unequal material realities.